Although unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people are in full-time education, one London borough realised organised activities during the summer holidays were needed. Graham Hopkins reports
We’re told that London, with its population of more than seven million, is a prosperous, dynamic, “world class” city. And yet, like any big city, it can be a daunting, isolating and lonely place. Especially so if you’re under 18, have no family or friends to support you, speak little or no English and have arrived on your own seeking asylum.
At any one time about 70 such unaccompanied minors find themselves in the corporate care of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which provides practical and emotional support and educational placements. But outside the classroom, opportunities seemed limited.
“We found that a lot of young people who had newly arrived in the UK had little support or contact during the holiday period,” says social worker Kwame Asumang. “So we came up with the idea to give some them some support and social activity as well.”
And so in 2004 the Social Education Support (SES) Group was formed by the borough’s unaccompanied minors team. “They didn’t really know what was on offer and hadn’t established any relationships. This would be a chance for them to get to know one another,” adds Asumang.
The team targeted young people living in semi-independent, hostel-type accommodation. “Those in foster placements do have the family support,” says acting team manager Rose Palmer, “whereas these young people lack that”.
The successful programme was repeated last summer and will hopefully take place again this year. “In the first year we used Hyde Park,” says Asumang. “We had some money to buy some basic games and provide sandwiches and snacks.”
Guest presentations were also arranged throughout that summer. “We had the Duke of Edinburgh Awards – and quite a few joined after hearing what the speaker had to say,” says Asumang. “Connexions made people aware of what it offers, what’s available and how to get a part-time job. We had a local advice service, Space KC, talk about sexual health. And there was a cultural day where young people themselves talked about where they came from.”
Last summer, however, the young people had a bigger influence on the programme. They said that, although they lived in London, they didn’t know anything about it: they hadn’t even seen the sights. And they wanted to go to the beach. Palmer says: “Interestingly, young people often talk about ‘London’ and ‘outside London’ as if they are the only two places in England. And few of them ever get the opportunity to go ‘outside London’ – so we did.”
Indeed, the trip to Brighton was a huge success, not least because many, including Aster from Eritrea, had not seen the sea before. “Going there was the best!” she says. Wai from China agreed: “Brighton!” he declared when asked what he had enjoyed the most. On seeing the sea, one young person could not contain himself and after quickly disposing of his jeans, ran in.
An open-top bus tour of London, a trip to Greenwich by boat and visits to the Natural History and Science Museums provided a taste of the capital. The summer’s events culminated in a group meal and an enthusiastic karaoke evening.
The programme also helped people improve their English. “The young people really help each other out,” says Palmer. “And the more you can encourage people to use English outside a formal setting the better. Karaoke was a brilliant idea because people had to read and sing the words.”
Mai from Vietnam, a karaoke star who’s learned by heart all WestLife‘s lyrics, loved the SES programme: “We can make friends and learn more English.”
The financing of fun, despite the educational benefits, can be tough to justify. “Money is limited but we take our role as corporate parents seriously – and we think this is an OK thing for a parent to do,” says Palmer. “I believe this helps young people to settle and to overcome issues of loss, separation and the serious things that have happened in their lives. But if it can be fun while they are learning, then that’s got to be a good way to be doing things.”